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Socializing your puppy is the most important thing you can do. Shelters are currently overfilled with puppies and dogs that have irreversible behavior issues. Socialization is the key to making sure those behavior issues are prevented, and dogs can be well adjusted.

Think about this. Do you remember the first time you heard an airplane or a screaming child? The human world is a crazy and hectic place.  If you were exposed to those things before you can even remember, they probably seem normal to you.  But if you never heard these scary sounds until you were older, they may have frightened you. If puppies are not properly introduced to new experiences they may grow to be fearful and reactive (barking at every noise or strange new thing in the environment.) Properly socializing a puppy is the key to having a well adjusted dog.

What Is Socialization?

When we talk about socialization, we mean helping a puppy learn to be comfortable in our world. Puppies must be properly introduced to a human world that has many different sights, sounds, environments, people – and other dogs.

Mother Nature is here to help! Dogs, and many other animals, are naturally curious about their surroundings – until a certain age. Once they reach that age, they become naturally suspicious of new things. This natural development allows a puppy to get comfortable with new sights, sounds, people and animals. The later, suspicious stage ensures they approach new situations with caution and react appropriately to danger.

Socialization is more then exposure to dogs and people. Dogs must adjust to different environments, places, textures, smells and sounds. Socializaition should be done in as many different places as possible, and owners should not rely on socializing with other dogs alone. 

What Age Is Best for Puppy Socialization?

Socialization is easiest between 4 and 16 weeks old. At about 16 weeks, puppies enter a “fear stage”, when they become more cautious of the world. The socialization window closes between 16 and 20 weeks, and with each passing week it becomes more difficult for a puppy to accept and enjoy new things. After 20 weeks of age it is significantly more difficult to get your puppy over the hump of being afraid of new experiences. It is crucial to get in as much socialization experience as possible before your puppy reaches 20 weeks of age.

Fearful dogs can develop behavior issues that can be almost impossible to reverse. Thousands of dogs a year end up being surrendered to shelters every year because they were not properly socialized to their environments. 

Why Is Puppy Socialization Important?

Well-socialized puppies usually develop into safer, more relaxed and enjoyable pet dogs. This is because they’re more comfortable in a wider variety of situations than poorly socialized dogs, so they’re less likely to behave fearfully or aggressively when faced with something new. Poorly socialized dogs are much more likely to react with fear or aggression to unfamiliar people, dogs and experiences. Dogs who are relaxed about honking horns, cats, cyclists, veterinary examinations, crowds and long stairwells are easier and safer to live with than dogs who find these situations threatening. Well-socialized dogs also live much more relaxed, peaceful and happy lives than dogs who are constantly stressed out by their environment.

The rule of thumb is “100 new experiences a day”. You should strive to expose your puppy to as many new situations as possible each day, and teach them to be comfortable in every situation. Not exposing your puppy in a positive way to new things during this crucial period has real consequences. The less exposure your puppy has the more likely they are to be fearful later on.

How Does a Puppy Need to Be Socialized?

Socialization is a big project. It requires exposure to the types of people, animals, places, sounds and experiences that you expect your dog to be comfortable in later in life. And exposure must be done in a way that is fun and comfortable for your puppy.  Depending on the lifestyle you have planned for your dog, this might include the sight and sound of trains, garbage trucks, elevators, streets with busy traffic, schoolyards of active children, crowds, cats, livestock or crying infants. Though it’s impossible to expose your dog to everything they will experience in life, the broader the range of exposures the easier it will be for the puppy to generalize new situations and accept them happily and safely. For any pet dog, it’s essential to get him used to the common types of people, dogs, sights, sounds and physical handling and grooming that will be a sure part of his daily life.

Reward your puppy with delicious treats when they become relaxed and happy in new situations. Treats need to be highly valued by your pup and should get them overly excited. Pepperoni, jerky’s, anything that smells and tastes fantastic to your dog. Boring treats or kibble that leave your dog bored just won’t cut it! (Remember, more dogs die from lack of exposure than from exposure to string cheese!)

Do I Need to Do Anything Special When I Socialize My Puppy?

Yes! Making sure your puppy isn’t overwhelmed by new experiences is pivotal. Your puppy should be relaxed and comfortable, not fearful, of new exposures. The rule of thumb with puppy socialization is to keep a close eye on your puppy’s reaction to whatever you expose him to so that you can tone things down if your pup seems at all frightened. Read their body language and make sure they are not cowering when faced with new situations. Always follow up a socialization experience with great food treats (jerky, string cheese), praise, petting, or a fun game.

What If My Puppy Seems Frightened During Socialization?

Even young puppies can react to new situations in a cautious and fearful way. Your goal is to find a gradual way to keep your puppy from getting too overwhelmed by a situation. Shower your puppy in praise and delicious treats to help them associate new places and situations with happy experiences with you. If your puppy is fearful, distance them from the situation and gradually bring them closer as their comfort level increases.  If your puppy is having a lot of fearful reactions to new things before age 16 weeks, consult with a professional trainer who is experienced in dealing with fear-based behavior using a scientific process called counter-conditioning to help your puppy feel safe.

Puppy Classes

Puppies learn best from other puppies! Puppy play classes are designed to safely give puppies time to interact off-leash. Play-fighting helps to teach puppies how to mouth softly and interacting with all the other owners gets them used to being handled by lots of people. Some classes even include crazy props and CDs of sounds, expanding the socialization experience. On top of the socialization aspect, puppy classes are  great way to start working on basic obedience and training skills and help your puppy learn to understand what you want from her.

Puppy play is not puppy training. Though teaching your puppy to listen and tricks are cute, puppy play teaches them about interacting with their peers and teaches them bite inhibition. Dogs do not magically come with the jaw prudence necessary to keep them from biting and piercing your skin. Every puppy must learn those skills from one another. Those skills are impossible to simulate through human and puppy interactions and puppy play, so puppy play is crucial. 

Puppy classes are extremely important for puppies that have been separated from their litters early in life. Adopting a puppy at or before 8 weeks of age can bring its own socialization risks, and puppy play helps to offset a puppy being separated from its litter. Puppy socialization is the best way for them to learn bite inhibition and proper puppy manners.  Puppies who miss out on early socialization with mom and litter mates have a high risk of behavior problems and will need extra time playing with other puppies their own age to make up for this.  

Vaccinations and Disease Risk During Early Socialization

The biggest risk of early socialization is the risk of disease exposure. Most dogs are not fully vaccinated until 16 weeks of age, when the socialization window is already closing. But this period of their lives is so crucial that veterinarians are recommending safe, yet consistent socialization. The risk of disease is actually less of a threat to your puppy’s wellbeing than behavior problems from poor socialization, which is one of the leading causes of dogs being surrendered to shelters. The biggest hope for keeping dogs out of shelters is to properly introduce them to the world early and often, before the socialization window closes.

So how do you socialize your puppy and minimize his exposure to illness? Puppy classes are the best place to start. The odds of contracting illnesses from other appropriately vaccinated puppies in a professionally supervised setting is low. If your puppy is able to play with older dogs, make sure the older dogs are properly vaccinated. Play spaces that are easily cleaned and sanitized are the safest. Avoid dog parks and areas with high dog traffic until your pup is fully vaccinated.

Remember, no exposure to a variety of normal life experiences is dangerous to your puppy. Finding safe exposures is key, and careful socialization is an important investment in creating a properly adjusted dog.

Here’s a couple tips on socializing puppies who aren’t fully vaccinated:

– Drive to a busy mall and hang out with your pup on a mat (to give him a clean spot to sit) at the entrance. Strangers will flock to you because they want to pet your puppy and they’ll willingly feed him the treats that you’ve brought with you.

– Host a puppy party! Invite friends and family over, play some music, toss some streamers, and pass your pup around.

– Take your pup on car rides through different neighborhoods, drive-thrus, car washes, and out into the country where he’ll see and smell a variety of farm animals.

– Arrange play sessions with other puppies and adult dogs who you know are healthy and friendly.

– If your puppy is small enough, carry him around town and let strangers pet him and give him treats.

Socializing your puppy is critical to having a well adjusted dog. Properly introducing your puppy to a crazy world will create a happier, more stable relationship between you and your dog. But don’t think you can do it alone. Puppy training and supervised puppy play is critical for puppies and their development. All puppies need to learn from each other, and have a confident hand in exposing them to new things. The long process of socialization will pay off for you and your dog!